27 January 2007

The Stem Cell Controversy: No Scripture, No Science, No Ethics, No Funding

At the point at which embryonic stem cells are useful to researchers, they have multiplied into only about 30 cells. By contrast, a fly has about 100,000 brain cells. Opposition to stem cell research seems to lack a basis in ethics, scripture, or science.

Consider the ethics. Imagine that you are a nurse working in a clinic, helping women to get pregnant. You are at a critical time step in getting semen to a woman who is ready. If you are delayed at all, the window of opportunity for conception closes. En route to her room, you are suddenly confronted with an adult who has stopped breathing. You are the only person able to revive him. Your choice is to let the sperm die or let the man die. I can hardly imagine a system of ethics that would suggest even a moment's hesitation.

We would never grant more rights to a tube full of semen than to a dying human being, and yet we are supposed to hesitate about choosing between the rights of millions suffering from injury and disease and microscopic amounts of stem cells? The only people who think that this is ethical are those who argue from a dubious religious position.

The political opposition to stem cell research rarely refutes claims that this research promises to cure diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's, or problems like paralysis. Rather, they oppose it because of the sanctity of life. What kind of life? A cluster of 30 cells that is no more cognizant of their own existence than is a sperm or egg cell. Theirs is supposedly a religious opposition, but it is not clear what religious authority they cite.

The Old Testament has many laws, including warnings against mixing different types of material in one garment, prohibitions against eating shell fish and pork or working on the Sabbath. Not even in the midst of such detailed law does it take time to mention the sanctity of the life of stem cells – or even a fetus. Nor does Christ mention such issues anywhere in his teachings. What these supposedly religious opponents to science never mention when speaking out against stem cell research is that there is not a single Biblical verse supporting their stance.

And this is the odd thing: with neither scripture nor science nor ethics on their side, these people have still managed to block federal funding for this research. It is time for everyone - whether they are secularists, Jews or Christians - to ask who these people are and how they got to make life and death decisions for the rest of us.


Dave said...

To play devil's advocate, and, it's been awhile since I read about the issue; but, I think there are some federal regulatory and/or statutory barriers to the use of existing stem cells. For all of the reasons you cite, they should be lifted. But, why should the feds pay for research? If there is great promise in the research, and I think there is, Pfizer could hire back some of the ten thousand it laid off to work in this area.

Ron Davison said...

It seems as though we're stuck with a model where the Pfizers of the world pretty much focus on applied research and leave the basic research for taxpayer funded organizations to pick up. I guess I'm unimaginative on this one but it seems like the answer is to just make sure that the profits flowing from applied research (and consumption of same) are taxed sufficiently to fund general research.